By Tracy Chevalier
Chevalier’s novel focuses on a servant girl in the service of the 17th century Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. This quick look into the life of young Griet conveys the mood of the time well. It also succeeds in constructing a beautiful and complicated network of relationships between the main characters without being predictable. It’s the perfect vehicle for learning a little bit about mixing pigments and observing light in early modern Delft. Not too fraught, not too steamy, not too didactic — Girl with a Pearl Earring is definitely worth a little of your time.
By Steve Martin
The art world is filled with larger than life characters. But for each successful character there are many times more failed careers and sordid stories. Beautiful, honest and relevant, An Object of Beauty does an excellent job of introducing us to those brilliant successes as well as the dangers that lie on the path to ruling the art world. It follows the varying fortunes of the young, beautiful and ambitious Lacey Yeager as she weaves her way through the world of art business. There’s a lot about her growth and development as a businesswoman – and a woman in general – but Martin treats his heroine well. He doesn’t include long passages of her considering her breasts in mirrors, but instead writes frankly about her from the point of view of a male friend. It’s also a fantastic look at the world of the modern auction house and how we see paintings – not only as objects of beauty but, increasingly, as objects of value.
By Terrence Morgan
The Master of Bruges is bizarre tale that follows the life of the northern Renaissance artist Hans Memling through a series of unlikely exploits. Debut novel of Terence Morgan, the narrative takes wild leaps from the confidence of a princess in Bruges to the Wars of the Roses in London. There isn’t a great deal known about artist’s life, but the Memling in this story simply tumbles down a fantastical bullet point list of 15th century historical highlights. So while it’s possible that Memling was a companion of Richard III and held certain evidence that he was in fact a Good King, and it could be that he was also a buddy of William Caxton, one of the earliest British proponents of the printing press, it’s all a bit unlikely. And it’s even more bizarre to think that for all the kings and major historical figures he has time to share cups of fine mead with, he has no other artist friends.
Still, it’s a vaguely exciting read. There’s a bit of war and a bit of romance (if you’re idea of romance is emotion free make out sessions – think seven minutes in heaven). If you want to read a “tell all” piece of art historical fictions (that doesn’t actually reveal anything) try The Da Vinci Code first. Then try The Master of Bruges.
By A.S. Byatt
Set in England during and around the arts and crafts movement, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book concerns itself with a cultured clutch of upper middle class families as they live through a changing world. From a philandering potter to an orphan draughtsman to the construction on the Victoria and Albert Museum, the book is deeply concerned with the development of Edwardian aesthetes into disillusioned victims of whatever you’ve go: sexual abuse, mental instability, heartbreak, and, above all, the First World War. Hardly a historical marker escapes the notice of the gloomy narrator or the surrounding characters. If nothing else, it’s worth reading the chapters about 1900 Exposition Universelle. But while it supplies the reader with a wealth of information about the time period, it makes for a labored storyline. Worth reading if you have time on your hands and an unsinkable spirit.
By Umberto Eco
As with The Children’s Book (above), I debated writing this review. After all, art is only one of a crushing multitude of topics discussed in The Name of the Rose. Set in an Italian monastery in the 14th century, it follows a canny detective-monk and his assistant, a young novice, as they attempt to solve a series of murders that occur within the abbey’s walls. It is the unnamed abbey’s great library that distinguishes it, and there is much discussion of the nature of the written word, its truth, language and the accumulation of knowledge. But there are still several hearty discussion of art, notably the purpose and effect of marginalia and the power of the carvings on one of the church doors. The images on the portal are so powerful that they send the young narrator into a swoon. In addition, there are repeated, though not overt, discussions on semiotics throughout. If you’ve ever struggled your way through a reading on the relationship between art history and semiotics, this could help clear things up — or it could simply muddy the waters. A time investment, but a worthwhile read.